Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Thoughts on Moliere

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known by his stage name, Moliere, began as an actor. In 1643 he co-founded with Madeleine Bejart the Illustre Theatre troupe. Two years later, the troupe went bankrupt and Moliere was briefly imprisoned for debt. After his release, he and Bejart got together again and eventually formed a new company known as The Troupe of Moliere. It was then that Moliere began writing short plays heavily influenced by commedia dell'arte. In 1658, the company performed for the first time before the new king, Louis XIV. They obtained the patronage of the powerful Duke of Orleans, and prospects were looking very bright.

The flowing year, Moliere premiered his first important play, The Affected Young Ladies, which poked fun at the pretensions of social climbers. In 1662, Moliere married Armande Bejart, a woman 18 years his junior who was supposedly the younger sister of Madeleine, but was in actuality her illegitimate daughter. The union does not seem to have troubled Madeleine, who remained on intimate terms with Moliere both before and after the marriage. However, opponents of Moliere would later use suspicions of incest as a tool to besmirch the playwright's name and drive away patrons.

The same year as his marriage, Moliere premiered The School for Wives. The hilarious comedy makes fun of men who--like Moliere himself--try to marry younger women. Critics attacked the play as scandalous, and in response Moliere wrote Rehearsal at Versailles, in which he defended not only himself, but also the theatrical profession in general. The controversy eventually died down after the king granted Moliere an annual pension, granting him tacit royal approval. However, the controversy over The School for Wives would soon be far surpassed by the coming furor over Tartuffe.

Originally performed in 1664 and rewritten repeatedly, Tartuffe tells the story of a religious hypocrite who insinuates his way into the home of the protagonist, Orgone, only to wreck havoc and threaten to ruin everyone. Moliere makes it clear that Tartuffe is an imposter and not a genuine priest, but conservatives saw the play as an attack on the clergy and perhaps on all religion in general. The Archbishop of Paris threatened to excommunicate anyone who performed, watched, or even read the play. Louis XIV intervened again in 1665, granting Moliere's company an annual subsidy and the title of The King's Troupe. Still, the play could not be publicly performed until 1669.

Moliere took on all forms of hypocrisy in his 1666 comedy The Misanthrope. The play's protagonist, Alceste, rails against every form of double-dealing in society and remains steadfast in telling the truth, no matter what anyone thinks of him. Ultimately, however, Alceste loses the woman he loves to a friend who is more flexible in his ideals. The play ends with Alceste enraged and at odds with both his friends and society. Though a failure at the time, it is now considered one of Moliere's greatest works.

In later years, Moliere adapted the works of Plautus in Amphitryon and The Miser. He collaborated with the court composer Jean-Baptiste Lully in pieces of musical theatre including The Bourgeois Gentleman. When Lully went his own way, taking with him all the best singers, Moliere went back to focusing on spoken drama and wrote The Learned Ladies. Though the play attacks the pretensions of women who focus on science and learning rather than on romance, the play is so delightful it has won over even feminist critics.

Moliere's health gradually worsened. His last play, The Imaginary Invalid, tells the story of a hypochondriac who, like the protagonist of The School for Wives, might have been a caricature version of Moliere himself. An actor to the end, Moliere collapsed onstage while performing the title role. He died without receiving last rites after two different priests refused to visit him.